The Russian national team gained plenty of admirers with their excellent performances at UEFA EURO 2008 in Austria and Switzerland last summer, where they reached the last four before bowing out 3-0 against eventual winners Spain. Under the guidance of experienced Dutch coach Guus Hiddink, the Sbornaja have grown into a side capable of going toe to toe with the world's best.
Spearheaded by the lethal Pavel Pogrebnyak, Russia currently lie in second place in Group 4 of European qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ behind group leaders and EURO 2008 runners-up Germany. Indeed, the Mannschaft's 2-1 success in October in Dortmund was the Russians' only defeat so far this campaign.
Despite that setback, Hiddink's charges still have everything to play for thanks to the six points gained from two important home wins against Wales and Finland, which ended 2-1 and 3-0 respectively. All of which makes the home match against Germany in October this year all the more decisive.
"Things are looking up for us at the moment," said Pogrebnyak in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. "We would have liked to have got all three points against Germany (in Dortmund) and it was Hiddink's aim to get seven points from the first three games, but we have got six points in the bag and we're not too far off the pace."
On paper, the Russians should have two fairly straightforward games coming up as they entertain Azerbaijan on 28 March before travelling to Liechtenstein four days later. Both these teams have only managed a single point from their opening three matches and would appear to be clear outsiders against the team lying eighth in the current FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
"Of course the quality of our upcoming opponents isn't the highest, but we know all too well how difficult it can be to play against these kinds of teams," warned the Zenit St. Petersburg striker. "We shouldn't think too much about how strong or weak our opponents might be, we just need to concentrate on beating them and making sure we gain maximum points."
A big honour
The towering 25-year-old has been involved with the Russian national squad for over two years and has already scored an impressive five goals in 12 appearances, statistics that would no doubt be higher had he not been forced to sit out last year's European Championships with a knee injury.
"It's a great honour for me to pull on the national shirt and every time I hear the national anthem, the hairs prick up on the back of my neck," says the striker, who scored Zenit's equaliser in their 1-1 draw at Spartak Moscow at the weekend, on the first matchday of the 2009 Russian Premier League season. "Following my injury, it's important for me to get back playing regularly and prove myself once again."
Meanwhile, Hiddink, the man who first called Pogrebnyak up for international duty, has recently taken over the helm at English heavyweights Chelsea in addition to his role as head coach of Russia. This set-up is not entirely new to the Dutchman, who just three years ago handled the fortunes of PSV Eindhoven while also leading Australia's Socceroos to Germany 2006.
In spite of the increased workload, Pogrebnyak sees his coach's dual role in a positive light: "Everyone in the national team is happy for him. I think it will prove to be an advantage for all of us because at the end of the day, our coach is working with one of the best clubs in the world.
"I am under contract at Zenit, but I really like the style of football played in England and so I would love to play there one day, especially seeing as I was a Manchester United fan for many years," added the Moscow-born hitman. And if he stays injury-free and keeps banging in the goals, who would back against Pogrebnyak joining former Zenit team-mate Andrei Arshavin on English shores in the not-too-distant future?